Many people assume that probate and estate planning issues are only for the elderly. They think that it's nothing to spend time worrying about until they're at least 80. Seasoned probate litigation attorneys know better. Every family has to address these important legal issues sooner or later; sometimes much sooner than they think. And when proper planning isn't done, it can often lead to trouble.
The Britney Spears case presents a good illustration. At the tender age of 26, she became subject to a court-ordered conservatorship and guardianship. Her father, Jamie Spears, has the legal right to make decisions for her, including controlling her finances (which are extensive). The judge allows him to pay himself more than $16,000 every month, from his daughter's money. Given the remarkable turnaround in her life and her career, this fee may be well worth it.
In fact, Britney now seems to be in favor of her father's control. In October of 2008, she agreed not to oppose her father's request to continue the conservatorship indefinitely (it was originally set to expire at the end of 2008). Think this means the court case is done? Not so fast.
Last week, an attorney named Jon Eardley, returned the case to court. Eardley, just over one year ago, claimed that Britney had asked him by telephone to represent her to fight the conservatorship. He even took the highly unusual step of trying to move the case to Federal Court, arguing she was denied a fair trial in the California Superior Court where the case was pending.
The Federal Court judge quickly ordered the case back to the California Court where it started, noting that the judge in that court had already ruled that Eardley could not represent Spears. Because Spears had been ruled legally incapable of managing her financial affairs (which is why she needed her father to serve as conservator), both judges ruled she could not legally hire Eardley. In fact, her father's attorney and her own court-appointed attorney also argued Britney did not want Eardley to represent her.
So why was Eardley back in court on the case last week? He appeared before the California judge claiming that Britney was being treated like Soviet dissidents subject to forced labor, as described in the Nobel Prize winning novel "The Gulag Archipelago". The Los Angeles Times reported on the story recently.
According to the article, Eardley claims he wants nothing to do with the case. He was ordered in January not to represent Britney and not to file anything on her behalf in court. Yet, there he was, essentially arguing to the judge that Spears was a prisoner and a slave. Eardley claims he did so simply because he wants the restraining order against him removed.
So Britney's money had to be spent on even more legal fees, for another court hearing (the most recent in a long line of court hearings). Had she done proper estate planning, and created a revocable living trust, then she could have selected someone she trusted to manage her financial affairs if she became unable to do so, without the need of court involvement. If such a trust had been properly created and funded, along with power of attorney documents, then the family could have gotten her the help she clearly needed with minimal court involvement -- and maybe even avoided the courts altogether.
It's never too early to plan, and it's never a good idea to think that estate planning and probate issues only matter to the elderly.
Posted by: Author and probate attorney Andrew W. Mayoras, co-author of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and co-founder and shareholder of The Center for Probate Litigation and The Center for Elder Law in metro-Detroit, Michigan, which concentrate in probate litigation, estate planning, and elder law. You can email him at awmayoras @ brmmlaw.com.Follow us on Google+